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Crabbing with Unk

Chesapeake crabbing

by Rick Sylvia

As a young suburban raised boy in the 1960's who had dreams of being the next Robinson Crusoe, wading for blue crabs with a hand net was exciting and adventurous. But a better thrill was building a lifelong admiration for my grandfather. For a few short days each year on the Piankatank River at Virginia's Northern Neck, both became the center of my universe as I visited my grandparents.

I'd stand out on the small dock behind their modest waterfront cottage style home, leaning against a cracked and weathered piling fidgeting madly without a moment's stillness, waiting for "Unk," my grandfather, to get everything ready for our adventure. I called him Unk because he was really my father's uncle. My dad went to live with him as a small boy himself, and so to me, he's every bit my granddaddy.
Waiting to get out on the water seemed to happen in slow motion. I watched as Unk made trips back and forth from the shed, first carrying a gas can, then PFDs, then bushel baskets, nets, and so on until I was ready to burst with both excitement and impatience all at once. And finally, finally, he give me the nod and I'd climb down the side of the dock and into the small wooden skiff.

Unk would be at the stern of the boat, shoeless and usually wearing Dickie style pants rolled up to mid calf. He'd be in a white button down shirt with either short sleeves or long sleeves rolled up, and he'd be wearing either an old, beat up Fedora or a well used and excruciatingly generic ball cap. It was always the same, with very little variation. A few pulls of the flywheel would fill the air with the rich smell of a fuel oil mixture that to some people was nauseating, but to me represented the sweet smell of adventure. To this day, the very same smell snatches me out of my adult life and takes me back to my childhood, reminding me of all those wonderful days on the Piankatank.

As we'd pull away from the dock, Unk would give the throttle a twist, and that old wooden skiff with a mere 20 or so horse power outboard would sprint to life and move at blazing speed. Well, it seemed like a blazing speed to me as I'd sit on the bench, centered with the keel line, eyeing wildly every little piece of seaweed, puff of foam, driftwood or dragonfly on the water's surface as it sped by. Minute by minute, and inch by inch, I'd work my way to the edge until I was leaning over the gunwale and dipping my fingers into the water, playing with the angles of my hand and being amazed at the effect it had on the tugging and pulling by the water. More than once, my hand would be slammed against the side of the boat, scaring me into temporary submission. I'd pull my hand out of the water and look back at Unk. He'd smile at me reassuringly, understanding that a young boy needs to learn some lessons for himself.

Finally, we'd arrive at our secret spot that of course nobody, I was sure, knew of except the two of us. It was a quiet little cove far away from what little boat traffic there was on the river, and completely out of view from all prying eyes. I imagined myself to be deep into the wilds, away from all forms of civilization. The water was clear and the bottom was firm. Perfect conditions for stalking and netting crabs.

Unk would shut down the outboard and set the anchor. Within seconds, I'd be climbing out of the boat and be standing in what was to me, waste deep water. He'd then gather up two long handled nets, one for each of us, and he'd tie a rope around his waist. On the other end of the rope was the bushel basket surrounded by a homemade float to keep everything upright and stable as it would saunter along behind us, never more than a net's reach away.

Ever so slowly, we'd walk along trying our best not to stir up the silt on the bottom. I'd see Unk suddenly stand still, intently eyeing the water in front of him, and with a grace that to this day still leaves me in amazement, he'd dip his net into the water and bring it back up filled with a beautiful blue crab. All in one motion, he'd turn toward the basket and empty the crab into it. Well, assuming the crab voluntarily let go of the net, that is. When they didn't, he'd simply reach in bare handed, grab the crab in all the wrong places, and coax it into submission. On occasion, the crab exchanged a claw full of net for a claw full of Unk's thick and weathered fingers, resulting in only the most minor of barely audible comments, such as "let go there, Jimmy." It seemed like no matter the gender, he referred to all crabs as Jimmies. Any other man, I convinced myself, would have let out a blood curdling holler that would have conjured up ole King Neptune himself to see what was the matter!

Occasionally, my turn would come to "land the big one." I'd steady myself and prepare for the ensuing battle. Slowly, I'd position my body and then immediately start thrashing the water in all manner of motions, trying desperately to connect crab with net. Sometimes the crab would simply get away, but other times it would get the better of me by somehow tricking me into falling into the water right up to my neck. Looking back at Unk to get his reaction, he'd simply be smiling from ear to ear, and assuring me that I'd get the next one.

After the basket was full, we'd get back into the boat and start the journey home. I'd always position myself so that I could see the crabs, in fear that one or two would escape their entrapment and test my toes for tastiness. Invariably, some would be scurrying around the top of the pile searching for a means of escape. All would be blowing bubbles just as fast as they could.

Somewhere in the boat, there always seemed to be some stick, pencil, piece of string--anything I could find--to taunt my captives. I'd take the object and dangle it closer and closer to their beady little eyes until SNAP, they'd clamp down on it with their giant pincers. Sometimes, it would startle me so much that I'd jerk back, with them in tow, to the point where they'd release their hold and end up in the bottom of the boat, searching frantically for a place to hide. I kept my bare feet up on the bench for fear that my little pinky toes would end up as fish food. All the while, Unk would be trying not to laugh at my desperate situation, and after a fair amount of time, and if the Jimmy was close by, he would simply reach down, pick him up and toss him back into the basket. For the rest of the ride home, I kept my taunting to a minimum, but left a watchful eye on those mean and spiteful little creatures that I just knew wanted to pinch me.

Back at the house, there would be a fire in the outdoor pit, with a pot over it so large that I swear I could have gotten into it myself. When the water came to a boil, Unk would start the process of dropping our catch into the bubbling water. This is the point where I would scurry off and make myself scarce. The sound of the scratching claws against the sides of the pot tortured my soul, and so it was a moment in time that I'd avoid at all costs.

Later, at dinnertime, those same crabs would appear on the table in a manner that I was sure was done to further torment me. Mable, my grandmother, was in the habit of taking the backs of the crabs, cleaning them, and stuffing them with the finished crabcakes. As the plate was put in front of me, it contained a now motionless set of upside down beady little eyes, daring me to take a bite. Oh, it would have been so much better for my tender little heart if she would have just served the crabcake by itself!

The following day, the river would be on the agenda again. Sometimes, it would be crabbing with a string line and a chicken neck, sometimes it would be fishing for spot or croaker. No matter what the activity, it always involved the waters of the wonderful Piankatank River, and my grandfather.

Those few short days each year on the River with Unk meant the world to me at the time, and they still do, as some of my most cherished boyhood memories.

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